RICHMOND, Va. -- Lawyers for former NFL player Rae Carruth asked a federal appeals court Tuesday to throw out his conviction for plotting to kill his pregnant girlfriend in 1999.
Carruth's attorneys told a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that statements and written notes by Cherica Adams after she was shot so tainted the jury that his conviction should be tossed out. A lower court ruled that the statements implicating Carruth were unconstitutional, but found that Carruth didn't deserve a new trial.
Adams, 24, died weeks after she was shot four times in November 1999. Their baby survived and is being raised by Adams' mother.
Carruth, also known as Rae Wiggins, was a wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers from 1997 through 1999. The 36-year-old was sentenced to 18 to 24 years in prison for conspiracy to commit murder, discharging a firearm into occupied property and using an instrument with the intent to destroy an unborn child. His projected release date is 2018.
According to testimony, Adams and Carruth had gone to the movies in Charlotte, stopped by his house to get her vehicle and then Adams followed Carruth to her house. Along a windy, two-lane road, Carruth stopped and a car pulled up beside Adams and shot into her vehicle.
Van Brett Watkins fired the shots and Michael Kennedy drove the car. Both pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for testimony that Carruth paid Watkins $6,000 to kill Adams and the baby.
In a 911 call, Adams reported that she was following her boyfriend and that he slowed down and someone pulled up beside her and shot her and her baby.
She later told a paramedic that "Rae" shot her, describing him as "my baby's daddy." At the hospital, Adams wrote notes saying that Carruth had insisted she follow him to her house, and that before they left he made a call and she overheard him say "We're leaving now."
A state court later ruled that those statements should not have been admitted because Adams couldn't be cross-examined. The 911 call, however, was deemed admissible.
Carruth's attorneys argued that inconsistencies in the jury's verdicts -- not guilty of murder but guilty of conspiracy and of using the gun on Adams and a weapon on the unborn child -- combined with the fact that it took nearly four days to reach a decision shows that it wasn't an easy call.
"That is powerful evidence that this jury was having difficulty reaching this decision," M. Gordon Widenhouse Jr., Carruth's attorney, said, arguing that the statements had a "substantial effect" on the jury.
North Carolina state attorneys countered that jurors also heard testimony from the shooters about how Carruth planned the attack and from ex-girlfriends who said that he resented paying child support and wanted Adams to have a miscarriage.
"They were not the centerpiece of the state's case," Mary Carla Hollis of the North Carolina Department of Justice said of Adams' statements. "We didn't need a centerpiece."
Hollis rejected the defense's claim that the statements were unchallenged, because the defense brought in experts who testified that the shock of the shooting and drugs given to Adams at the hospital could have altered her judgment.
"These notes weren't just admitted and laid out there," Hollis said. "They had a chance to knock those down in the eyes of the jury."
The judges also drilled Widenhouse on his claim that the statements made to medical personnel and police were the tipping point for the jurors.
"This wasn't a case that was built on a nurse and a police investigator," said Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, who brought up that Carruth had fled to Tennessee after Adams' death and was found hiding in the trunk of a car.
"If it was the cumulative avalanche you say it was, there wouldn't have been inconsistent verdicts," Widenhouse shot back.
The court typically takes several weeks to issue a ruling.